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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Bearer of Bad News: Park aide Jim Doll updates the welcome sign at Big Basin State Park.

Parks Idea Missing the Mark?

Closing state parks makes little economic sense, according to two new reports--and it might be illegal.

By Alastair Bland

THE GOVERNOR'S proposal to close 220 of the state's 279 state parks as a cost-cutting measure could shoot California's economy in the foot. Results of two university studies have concluded that California's state parks generate more money than they cost to operate, and local park advocates assure that tourism in Santa Cruz County will suffer if the parks go off-limits.

Countywide, more than 700 campsites remain occupied nearly every night all summer, according to Randy Wildera, an activist of 21 years with Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. Wildera assures that an abrupt vacancy in state parks will curtail visitor revenue and overall deliver a painful blow to the local economy. In 2008, according to Wildera, more than 12 million people visited state parks countywide. Many of these visitors camp in state parks and spend their days and their dollars in town.

"You look at the campsites at New Brighton, and all summer they're full," Wildera says. "People come from the Central Valley and from the Bay Area. They camp, then go out into the town from there. These are affluent campers who go to Capitola and to the Boardwalk. These parks are a landing spot for people to visit Santa Cruz."

In June, Sacramento State University published a report stating that the average party that spends a night in a California state park spends $57 at local businesses. The report estimated that such expenditures by park visitors total $4.3 billion annually statewide. Another report released in 2002 by UC-Berkeley stated that for every dollar taken from the state's general fund for the operation of state parks, $2.35 returns to the general fund in the form of sales tax. In other words, park revenues outweigh costs, according to the reports.

But Gov. Schwarzenegger and his staff don't fully trust the numbers of the Sacramento State study, according to H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance. The study reports that 88 percent of surveyed park visitors are California residents. Likely, says Palmer, these residents would have spent their money whether they camped the night in a state park or not.

"We don't believe there would be a net reduction in economic activity in the state," says Palmer.

The same Sac State report said that out-of-state visitors, who made up 12 percent of those surveyed, spent an estimated $1.66 billion within California during their visits.

"But the study assumes they visited California only to visit the park, whereas they probably would have come anyway. We think that in these regards the study overstates the economic impacts [of closing state parks]," says Palmer.

Wildera says the Department of Finance's logic cannot be applied to Santa Cruz, where state campgrounds serve as lodging. "People around the state might still spend their money if the parks are closed, but they won't necessarily come and spend it in Santa Cruz."

Federal Dollars at Risk
But regardless of how serious the economic impacts of park closures will be on Santa Cruz County, they may be downright illegal.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund, created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, has granted the state of California $286 million to spend on public parks. The fund stipulates, however, that all parks maintained through the use of such federal money must remain open to the public "in perpetuity."

Local parks assisted through the fund over the years include Big Basin Redwoods, Portola Redwoods, Castle Rock, Henry Cowell Redwoods and a handful of others.

In a June 8 letter to Schwarzenegger, the National Park Service's Pacific Regional Director John Jarvis warned that closing state parks funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund would be a breach of the law and that when the parks reopen, they could lose future federal support.

"I think we need to remind ourselves that protecting a place 'in perpetuity' means 'in perpetuity,'" says Traci Verardo-Torres, vice-president of government affairs with the California State Parks Foundation, an organization in Sacramento. "If they shut these parks down, the state would be absolutely out of compliance to the agreement that they came to when they took the money."

In the Legislature, the issue is about as partisan as issues get, as revealed when the State Park Access Pass--which would cost state residents just $1.25 per month through to keep all parks operating--failed to get the support it needed.

Such a fund would generate $363 million every year for California state parks, easily making up for the $143 million general fund dollars which the governor plans to divert from state parks in the next two years.

Although Gov. Schwarzenegger "is open to creative measures" by local governments that could generate revenue to pay for nearby park operations, according to spokeswoman Lisa Page, he has already vowed to veto the State Park Access Pass.

Sloppy Planning
Palmer says that the state's general fund is projected to grow to $101 billion by next year if the budget is not rewritten. A new budget will "hopefully" be drafted before the end of the month, says Palmer, one that would chop out nearly $20 billion from the general fund, leaving $82 billion. All state park funds will be liquidated.

This plan, says Palmer, will leave open 59 parks that either generate their own revenue through on-site concessions or are paid for from special funds, including the off-highway vehicle tax and the gas tax.

Every state beach in Santa Cruz County is slated to get the ax. How this will affect beach access remains uncertain, but in a county where 50 percent of the coast is public state property, the park closures could devastate tourism and recreation. Meanwhile, state parks occupy one-fifth of Santa Cruz County's land area.

"They'll basically be closing the county," warns Wildera, who adds that the budget cuts reflect sloppy planning in Sacramento. By contrast, he says, the state park system is extremely well run.

"[Sacramento officials] are taking a well-managed system and shutting it down because they don't have their own act together. The state parks are very efficient. In Santa Cruz County, you have 134 employees managing 20 percent of the land."

The current state parks onslaught is not the first such threat. In January 2008, the governor threatened to close 48 state parks for a monetary savings of $13 million. Through an aggressive "save our parks campaign," the California State Parks Foundation averted the proposal--but only temporarily.

"When this issue came around again, frankly, it was staggering," says Verardo-Torres, who helped lead the campaign against the 2008 attack. "I think people need to know and realize that this is a very real proposal."

With the State Park Access Pass all but doomed, park advocates are hoping for a surprise budget allotment in the general fund. Otherwise, closures could begin as soon as September--regardless of legality or economic sense.

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